The Sunday Leader

A Question Sri Lanka’s Leaders Keep Dodging: Where Are The Disappeared?

By Charles Haviland

Protesting against enforced disappearances Picture Courtesy: Avaaz

I’d been in Sri Lanka just three weeks when I first heard of someone disappearing. It was May 2009 and I got an anonymous email telling me that Stephen Sunthararaj, a human rights worker from northern Sri Lanka, had been abducted at gunpoint and taken away in a white van in the heart of Colombo. He had previously been detained by the police – on suspicion of what, it is not clear – then released for lack of incriminating evidence just before his abduction. I tried to contact one or two ministers, I think, but didn’t get through and my work once more turned to the war then still raging in the north. I bitterly regretted not following up the case. Months later I met a Westerner who had known Stephen Sunthararaj. At the mention of him at dinner, he wept.
Fast forward to this year. Five weeks ago Ramasamy Prabagaran, a businessman and, like Stephen, a Tamil, was snatched in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter just as they were getting home. He too was spirited away in a white van; he too has not been seen since. When we visited his home, his wife, Shiromani, with holy ash from the Hindu temple on her forehead, was able to welcome us with a smile. But her voice was anguished as she told of how the men wrestled with him as he screamed and tried to hang onto the gate, of how cars and people passed and did nothing to help. How would the enchanting young daughter, Nikita, be affected now and if her father doesn’t come back?
I haven’t met the abducted man, who’s known as Praba. It seems he’s reasonably well-off. A muscular man whose exercise treadmill we saw in the front room. A man photographed on holiday in Switzerland and meeting top Indian cricketers. He belongs to a small ethnic group – Tamils of Indian origin, who had nothing to do with the separatist war. But he had nevertheless been held by the security forces for over two years, accused of Tiger involvement, bitterly denying it, and – according to a government medical officer’s report – showing signs of severe torture – “inflicted intentionally”, as it put it. “They are trying to make me a Tiger but I am not a Tiger,” he cried during a fleeting meeting with his wife during that time. But in September he was at last freed for lack of evidence. Two days before his complaint of torture came up in court, he was abducted. Where is he now?
There is a feeling of helplessness surrounding such events. This is the second time in nine months that I have covered the issue as a journalist.
Unfortunately “white vans” are the subject of a sort of grim humour in this small, intimate city. You talk with friends about someone doing something risky. Then you say: I hope a white van doesn’t come for him. The history of these sinister vehicles with false number plates goes back at least 20 years. But the war has now been over for three – yet the vans continue their cruel operations.
Human rights campaigners documented 32 unexplained abductions and disappearances between October and February. There was another this week, plus an apparent attempted abduction. The victims have been of all ethnic groups: Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim. Only five victims escaped, while seven bodies were found and the rest have vanished.
Arumugan Weeraraja is a labourer who struggled to educate his son, Lalith. He asked him not to get involved in politics. But Lalith, and a friend, Kugan, did. They organised demonstrations by families of disappeared people from the former war zone. In December they themselves were disappeared in Jaffna in the north, as if being taught a grim lesson for daring to speak up. No locals dared testify about what they witnessed. “I’ve asked at all the police stations, but none can help me,” said the father, tearfully, at a news conference.
A shocking thing has been the brazenness of several incidents. Both Stephen, a few years ago, and Praba were taken after being cleared in court cases. Another man was whisked away from the very arms of prison guards outside the Colombo Law Courts.
It isn’t just government critics who have vanished, or those it was seeking to implicate in terrorism. Some victims are those whom the authorities and the highly partial media denounce as being part of the criminal underworld. Even some figures until recently associated with the government are disappearing, especially since October when there was a fatal shooting incident involving two rival government strongmen.
When I met the genial police spokesman, Superintendent Ajith Rohana, he said time and again that the police were trying to solve these cases and the government wasn’t involved. I asked him whether we aren’t now talking about death squads in Sri Lanka. “Not at all. We totally deny that allegation,” he insisted.
But if unaccountable gangs roam around in vans, removing people who are usually never seen again – regardless of who sent these men, what are they other than death squads?
In its report in December, the internal war commission set up by President Rajapaksa said, quoting one witness: “Disappearance is far worse than death… When a person has disappeared, it is an eternal suffering.”
So I would ask the Sri Lankan leadership: Where is Ramasamy Prabagaran? Where are Lalith and Kugan? Where is Stephen? Where are Prageeth, Upali and others whose cases I reported earlier – and so many others beyond that?
I wonder if I will get answers – and whether their distraught families will.
[Editors note: This article expands on the BBC Radio podcast first broadcast on 13 March 2012.]

21 Comments for “A Question Sri Lanka’s Leaders Keep Dodging: Where Are The Disappeared?”

  1. Meena M.

    It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that these poor people were conveniently taken away because they were causing no one but the present government, problems by their questioning and bringing into focus the crimes of the leaders. They have been mysteriously been swallowed up by well organized, well protected and supported influential forces, that have strong links to the present leadership of this country. The fact that the criminals have been allowed to get away, and that the regime that is suppose to uphold the law, and see justice is done, is strangely quiet and has not shown any outrage to these unacceptable kidnappings, speaks volumes. It is very sad that the victim’s families have not been given the answers, and that most probably never will. They will live their lives in limbo. There is no justice in Sri Lanka. Only unspeakable crimes by arrogance, criminal leaders.

  2. Hadeniya

    Successive governments in Sri Lanka have been employing abduction, torture and “disappearances” to silence genuine protest, starting with the first JVP led uprising in 1971. These have been well documented by human rights activists. It is a shame that governments have been able to get away with this for such a long time.

    No matter how beautiful the city of Colombo will be after development, this internal cancer will continue to haunt peace loving Sri Lankans.

  3. joe nathan

    I do not know who is using my name and email address.I am not interested in Srilankan politics.

  4. love2beTRAITOR

    people missing have been sentenced to death. unwritten law in sri lanka

  5. randy Mathew

    All this dreadful things happening under a former human rights activists nose. We all now know that he had been pretending at that time so that he can come to power one day. very sad indeed

  6. randy Mathew

    Leaders ? what leaders ? SL never had Leaders since Independence. All they had was people who came to power solely for their benefits but not for the betterment of the country. Countries that got independence around 1948 and after are doing well (eg- Singapore , India ) while SL is only going backwards.

    • Charles

      A true leader is a person who is responsible for leading the entire nation out of misery. Not only his family. I am sure he is great leader for the family. But what about for SL?? Also no point being inside the Temple Trees and listening to his henchman of the cabinet and believing whatever they about the people and their welfare life in Sri Lanka. Mr. President, Whatever your ministers say to you is a lie. They just wants to be in your good books so they lie through their teeth.
      We have to believe the fact that Sri Lankans are suffering from Hunger, fear, abductions, extra judiciary killings and disappearance, white van syndrome, Fear of Gotha, fear of the Police for not doing their job properly.(Like releasing the caught white van Abductors/Killers)

      So as a leader what will Mr. MR going to give back to the people who voted for them to enjoy these privileges. Remember when you hit the stomach. It hurts the most.

    • Gotta the hero

      Randy superb comments. I hope these idiots see what you are saying.

  7. Bruz

    Officially ‘ no one knows’, unofficially ‘every body knows’ ! It’s all a public secret.

    • gamarala

      Those who know are busy praying in places of worship – in sri lanka,india and elsewhere.
      The Maha Sangha blesses them.

    • For truth and against thuggery

      Bruz;
      You should be able to ask those who pay you and tell us, mister.

  8. MF

    When disappearances were happening during Ranasinghe Premedasa’s tenure,
    some even traveled to Geneva and requested foreign governments to get involved and put a stop to it…. it was an patriotic act then…( according to them)… but now when the same thing is happening in the country and when people especially journalists make representations to Human Rights Organisations, they are been called traitors,,, and some ministers are threatening to break their limbs…this is pure hippocracy…

  9. dagobert

    More external meddling in internal SL, we will experience more disappearnces.

  10. alibaba

    Charles Haviland is a respected journalist and his article on ‘disppearances’ is a urgent reminder of the status quo in Sri Lanka. As highlighted, silence of the population on the isuue is out of fear rather than doubts about their authenticity. The government failed to ride on the success and international support they had following the defeat of a ruthless terrorist group. It played the ‘patriotic’ or ‘anti-Sri Lankan’ game to suppress all criticism and of course opened the door for the UNCHR resolution to happen. Unless there is a complete turnaround and good governance practices become obligatory, Sri Lanka will continue to live this sad life. Too many in power are guilty of wrong-doings and giving up the good life and acknowledging corruption are not healthy options for survival.

  11. dagobert

    BRUZ or BRUTE…. either they have fled and taken other names like mudalige and/or has gone to meet their creator to say mea culpa.

    No dodging. Once those asylum providing countries comeout with figures of those with new identities ( if they had not been duped) then accounting for the balance is no problem.

    We ask the guardian of the mother of God the protector of Our Lady’s statue at Madhu that RAYAPPU & the person who wears the cloak for Jesus but worship VELU that S,J,Emmanuels to start praying to their Master to find out the figures of those who have reported to GOD of their arrival asking for pardon by stating mea culpa.
    Hope they will not mistakenly pray to the SATAN asking for figures

  12. Kitty Koala

    I am so happy living in my beautiful country with freedom and high standard of living without fear. SL is now so bad, that I will never visit again.

  13. Nagesh

    It will be only a matter of time before the LTTE will be back to bury these animals

  14. Cry-Lanka

    Until now after three years no one in srilanka could celebrate the real war victory. so much skepticals all over. Daily tension is mounting. People are not sure of the future. Confusion & chaos everywhere. Literally its worse than the no-hope situation during the war time. It looks like that the Tamils and international community are blaming Srilanka generally but its because of one family which ruins Srilankans reputation. If it was not for this family today after three years this country would be a better place for all to live happily. Time is the healer.

  15. Sri

    It is this type of brazen behaviour that created the LTTE and other Tamil rebels. SLGovernment never learns, it only covers up and goes into a state of
    self-denial while all round there are crimes without number. The white van menace has resulted in 52 disappearances in the past 6 months. When a relative of the Post Minister was white vanned his relatives got in touch with the Minisier who got in touch with the President and hey presto! he was released in some 15 minutes! How did that happen? There is the other remarkable case o the UC Chairman of Kolonnawa who put up a gun fight and caught one of the white van criminals who turned out to be a military man! Although he was produced at the local police station he is reported to have been released without charge! It stinks!

  16. Sinnaan

    Who has A HEARTamong those carry out tiese ABDUCTIONS to feel for those who lost their beloveds , knowing nothing about the where about or what realy happend, being really an ETERNAL SUFFERING!

    If it happens to HIM or his beloved……

  17. randy Mathew

    Welcome to Rajapakistan, a democracy like no other

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